I just finished a recent release, “The Devil You Know” by Elisabeth de Mariaffi, that seemed promising and began pretty engagingly, but by the time I reached the end, had me wanting to throw it against the wall. I then read a review by a mystery maven who I admire and was quite surprised to find that she praised it, not as a mystery exactly, but as something she could relate to and a fine example of a “literary thriller.”
This made me wonder what exactly a “literary thriller” is. The “literary” novel (O.K., I’ll drop the quotation marks now) is a relatively recent classification – novelists in the past wrote novels without a lot of marketing labels. Now it’s a defined genre like any other, with conventions as strict as Romance or Western. First, and for me most positively, there’s close attention to the prose itself. This is something I think I’m more picky about that most people. There are some extremely popular writers I can’t get more than a few paragraphs into because I’m allergic to cliché and malapropism. Stephen King once wrote a guide for writers in which he basically told people to use the first word they think of because it doesn’t make that much difference anyway, which for me pretty much encapsulates Stephen King. The reviews I’ve read have praised de Mariaffi for her aphoristic turn of phrase, and there were several clever passages that had me writing them down for the quote bag:
Kids’ funerals tread a funny line: people bring flowers and teddy bears and balloons and everybody eats cake afterward. It’s a lot like a baby shower, except for the horror.
Of course you can go too far with this. In long passages where nothing happens the language itself, no matter how lyric, can become enervated, and a literary type, as Mrs. Henry Adams said of Henry James, quite often “chews more than he bites off.” I’d put the more prose of James Lee Burke or William Kent Krueger up against any of the fashionable literary stylists, and there are very few out there as consistently audacious and experimental as James Ellroy.
Unfortunately nothing happening can also be a hallmark of the literary genre. Mild boredom is considered a necessary sacrifice for the virtuous pursuit of literature. In many ways it’s seen as the badge that distinguishes the emperor from the commoners. It’s somehow déclassé to have an eventful narrative with a vigorous tempo. “Plot driven” has become a veiled put-down, which is a problem for the literary thriller because they’re expected to be, you know, thrilling. The slow boil can be an effective tactic to generate suspense, but if a writer waits until the final chapters to reluctantly advance things in a dramatic way, as de Mariaffi does, this lobster will have climbed out of the pot and crawled away long ago.
Instead of being plot driven the literati like to claim that their work is character driven. I would argue that the series format allows mystery writers the opportunity to develop character in unheard of depth over time and circumstance. Besides I believe that character is most authentically revealed in the stressful life or death situations found in thrillers rather than the neurotic moping literary characters revel in.
This emphasis on character causes far too many writers, mystery and otherwise, to indulge in lists of likes and dislikes, detailed personal histories of not only the main character but minor characters as well, and other things that seem more like writing seminar exercises than information the reader needs to know. Raymond Chandler and Loren D. Estleman can establish memorable characters with one phrase or sentence, while de Mariaffi felt the need to tell me not only how the heroine lost her virginity but how her best friend did too, information that advanced neither the plot nor any crucial understanding of their characters an inch. In a generally dark book haunted by serial killers and child murders the narrator pauses to impart the secret of making good cupcakes or painting sinks. The character may be driving but the vehicle is going in circles.
And then there’s Chevy Stevens. I think with really good authors I’m never quite sure how they get away with it. Chevy Stevens confronts sensational, almost melodramatic material that should be exploitative or distasteful but somehow remains compelling and very, very real. She’s not afraid to inhabit her characters, to push them into the abyss, and as a reader I’m more than willing to follow. Her new book “Those Girls” starts with three sisters in rural Canada who are being abused by their widowed father, forced into violent action and attempt to flee to the big city. Unfortunately, the road is not often kind to teenage girls who are on the run with something to hide, and they end up in an even worse circle of hell.
Eventually they escape physically, but Stevens is very good at portraying the lasting scars of abuse, and when one of the sisters travels back to confront the past it feels inevitable. What is even more wrenching is that she’s followed by her niece, daughter of the principle narrator, and history threatens to repeat itself.
Steven’s vision is unflinching and immersive and her books always capture me from the first sentence. Her characters don’t lie in bed musing about things they may or may not have seen, they act, swept by events from one place to another with a nightmare immediacy and the reader is swept with them. She avoids all the things the literary thriller is so afraid of, like sensationalism and cliché, yet she remains thrilling and suspenseful. And Stevens has just as much to say about the victimization and powerlessness of women in contemporary society, but because her portrayal is more dramatic, it is more powerful.
Endings are another thing the literati have problems with. Bringing things to a conclusion is somehow seen as artificial or inauthentic, overlooking the fact that a novel is fiction, inherently an artifact. I don’t care if a book is like real life or not – because it can’t be real life, even if it’s non-fiction. For me, no matter how realistic it is I’m not satisfied with an anti-climax, an ending like that of The Devil You Know where the reader doesn’t learn much conclusively and the creepy guy who has the heroine trapped in his house says You think I won’t let you go? And then does. We need to see the monster unmasked and dispatched – it’s hardwired, beyond all academic theory. Besides we all already have real life, probably too much of it. What we need, and have needed since caveman days, are credibly shaped stories.